Cityview: Budgeting for Time

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It shows in the budget: The mayor is more interested in the political magic of $2 billion in tax cuts for the well-off than in dealing with the harsh realities of New York City: high unemployment, wide-spread failures in public schools and hospitals, a lack of affordable housing, limited preventive services, and an increasing disparity between the rich and everyone else.

While his preliminary version of next year’s budget throws tens of millions of new dollars at the police department, it slashes basic human services–including cuts of eight to 20 percent in parks, libraries, cultural affairs and youth services, and adds no new money for the city’s underfunded schools.

At the end of April, the mayor will release a much more detailed executive budget, which is followed by five or six weeks of negotiations and horse-trading. Advocates lobby their councilmembers for funding, who in turn lobby the Speaker. Once the basic parameters are set, the budget process culminates in a series of rapid-fire proposals and counterproposals between the chief budget staff for the mayor and the council. These political realities change little from year to year–even if councilmembers succeed in securing money for good programs, the basic framework of the budget is determined by the mayor.

So, while the maneuvering goes on in City Hall each year, we here at City Project coordinate a coalition of 25 human service organizations to draft an alternative budget proposal. These Alterbudget agendas provide an alternative vision of how our city’s money should be spent, based on principles of equity and justice rather than political expediency. Improving failing schools, training the untrained for real work and supporting affordable housing will make for a fairer city than arguing over the mayor’s “initiatives”–school vouchers, merit pay and tax cuts. This year, our agenda will focus on the New Yorkers left out of the narrow world of the mayor’s budget, beginning with poor children and the jobless.

  • Although the public assistance caseload has been reduced more than 45 percent in five years, the poverty rate in the city is still more than double the national level, according to the Community Food Resource Center. The city government, intent on reducing the rolls, assigns welfare recipients–including many with disabilities and substance abuse problems–to workfare programs rather than providing the education, training and treatment that translates into decent jobs. In addition, the welfare grant, which has been unchanged for 10 years, currently brings a family of three only to 49 percent of the federal poverty level, or 73 percent of the level when food stamps are included.
  • The city should work with the state to increase the welfare grant, fund a new transitional job program and treat clients with respect.

  • Almost two-thirds of the city’s population are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. However, according to the New York Immigration Coalition, the school system largely ignores the educational needs of students from immigrant and refugee families. Complicated new immigration laws have created fear, fostered discrimination and promoted confusion about eligibility rules. The availability of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes has declined by 25 percent since the mid 1990s, leaving thousands on waiting lists.
  • The city should increase funding for ESOL for adults by $5 million and funding for citizenship and legal services by $2.4 million, and work to eliminate barriers in the application processes for Medicaid and Medicaid managed care.

  • The decline in crime is welcome, but it’s time to call a halt to escalating police costs. Aggressive, expensive tactics have multiplied low-level arrests and unjustly trapped many innocent people in the criminal justice system, mostly poor and disproportionately people of color. Police overtime will hit a record $175 million this year (matching the entire parks department budget!), while spending to help the indigent in court has remained essentially static.
  • Modest pullbacks in overtime alone would restore full funding for the Legal Aid Society, the Office of the Appellate Defender and Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, three longtime providers of quality legal representation for the poor.

  • In another of his attacks on the poor and communities of color, Mayor Giuliani has waged a campaign to end remedial classes at the City University of New York, even though 81 percent of public senior colleges nationwide offer remediation, according to the Welfare Rights Initiative at Hunter College and CUNY Is Our Future. Since the Giuliani administration expanded welfare work programs in 1995, 21,000 CUNY students have been forced to abandon their studies in order to fulfill work requirements. Yet research shows that 87 percent of people on welfare who attain a bachelor’s degree secure jobs that enable them to move permanently off the rolls.
  • Part of the anticipated $2.5 billion budget surplus this year should be used to decrease tuition, increase child care and remedial support services, and hire more full-time faculty, and provide adjuncts and part-timers a decent wage.

  • The city makes it difficult for people to apply for Medicaid, increasing the number of the uninsured. According to the Commission on the Public’s Health System, almost 30 percent of non-elderly city residents are uninsured. Nevertheless, the mayor proposes to eliminate many City Council-funded public health programs. With asthma reaching epidemic proportions, the mayor is proposing to replace $2.5 million of city asthma dollars with federal funds, rather than using city funds to add programs. Also, he would eliminate matching funds for Child Health Clinics and city-run Diagnostic Treatment Centers. These centers are crucial for homeless children, whose asthma rates are six times the national average, according to the Children’s Health Fund.
  • Funding for asthma programs must be increased, $11 million in tax levy cuts must be restored, and tobacco settlement dollars must be provided to the health department and the Health and Hospitals Corporation.

The real stunner in the mayor’s preliminary budget, however, is his tax cut package. It rewards wealthy New Yorkers and businesses who have already profited from the high-end prosperity of Wall Street success. Fully implemented, the package will cost more than $2 billion a year. It gives away $400 million a year in tax cuts to businesses alone–a figure larger than the annual amount spent on youth, seniors and cultural affairs. Worse, the cuts would lead to a ballooning budget deficit–up to $4.2 billion by 2004, according to the city comptroller. It’s a self-inflicted budget disaster, a legacy no mayor should invite.

These tax cuts are especially poisonous to equity in the city. About 45 percent of a proposed $780 million cut in the personal income tax would go to the top two percent of taxpayers. The council’s plan is little better, adopting a tax cut package that simply restructures this giveaway, aiming more of the benefit toward the middle class.

The mayor’s budget also abandons the earned income tax credit that was adopted last June for this fiscal year. This tax cut, especially helpful for low-income workers in new jobs, would benefit almost 600,000 households at a price tag of only $48 million a year. It’s the only tax cut proposed during the Giuliani administration that was targeted toward working families, and now it’s being postponed yet again.

In past years, more than 99 percent of the mayor’s executive budget was eventually adopted. But the tax cuts can be dramatically limited. During May and early June, the Council and advocates–including Alterbudget agenda advocates–will fight to restore or add at least $200 to $300 million for services. The budget battle is far from over, and councilmembers and the mayor need to hear from everyone who wants a better budget.

The Alterbudget Agenda will be released at the annual Alterbudget Breakfast on May 3. Call 212-965-1967 for details.

Glenn Pasanen is associate director of City Project, which releases and annual alternative budget.